The alarm drags me from slumber at 3.30am. I stop it quickly, not wanting to wake the whole apartment. Beside me Nicola stirs, rolls over, and drifts back into a deep sleep. I watch her for a moment and then tentatively tip-toe out of our room and down the corridor, past her parents’ door and into the kitchen. I carefully and quietly brew a pot of coffee and sit at the table to eat the breakfast that Paul had made for me the night before. Other than the occasional clink of spoon against dish, there is no sound.
I change into running gear and check my pack one last time. I feel oddly calm. Shortly before 4.30am Nicola wakes and insists on walking to the coach with me. My objections fall on deaf ears, and so we wander through a dark and subdued Chamonix, cloaked in a mixture of running gear, down jackets and pajamas. Mont Blanc looms somewhere above us on one side, more immediately the massif of Brevent to the other, monstrous beautiful silhouettes. We whisper to each other while we walk, as if doing so will keep Chamonix at peace a while longer. I don’t want her to leave, but at 5am she walks back to the apartment and I forge on alone, reluctantly.
The coach is packed. I want to rest but the Italian gentleman behind me feels a sense of duty to keep the entire company entertained and so shouts and sings continually. I try to tune out but we arrive in Orsieres ninety minutes later and I have not managed a minute of sleep. I shamble down the steps into a crowded town somewhat wearily, slightly disoriented and unsure of quite what to do or where to go.
Despite the congregation Orsieres has a quiet charm, cradled by mountains just over the border from Chamonix in Switzerland. It both amuses and excites me as I join the other runners in the town square that in a matter of minutes I will be attempting to race from Switzerland to France, across the Alps. Welcome then, to the OCC.
The OCC (Orsieres to Champex to Chamonix) is a new race, the fifth to now comprise ‘UTMB Week’. At the beginning of August following an injury and DNF at the Devil of the Highlands race I had scrapped all plans to run it, but a solid block of subsequent (and very different) training and some straight talking from both my wife and my dad had led to a change of heart only five days before the start. Just have a go. For the experience. No racing. Just running. Go get lost in the mountains for a few hours. Do what you love. And so here I am at 8am a little under four weeks on from a DNF at the OCC’s start line, in a remote Swiss town in the middle of the mountains, with thirty two miles and ten thousand feet of ascent to determine exactly what I am made of.
It’s a big deal for the town. Everybody is out to watch, and I do mean everybody. There is a stage, an MC, music playing. They only seem to have one song on the playlist, something indeterminable by Coldplay I think, and it’s on repeat from 6.30am to 8.00am when we eventually get underway. Nonethless, I feel a huge swell of emotion and excitement as we are counted down from ten to start the race. Tears sting my eyes as the mass of bodies begins to move in one giant wave forward. Tiny, stunted steps become a shuffle, then a walk, and after a couple of minutes a gentle trot. Before long, we are running. We are running to Chamonix.
I am aware that I am a long way back in the starting pack. Out of 1200 runners, I am tightly boxed in probably three quarters of the way down the numbers. For today, this is OK. Today I am running, not racing. I keep telling myself that. Orsieres is a broiling cauldron of excitement and positivity as we make our way through the town. People crowd onto terraces, line the streets, hang out of windows. Cheers, laughter, applause and shouts of support replace Coldplay for our soundtrack as the slow, methodical procession winds it’s way along the narrow roads. It is a moment I have imagined for a long time, brought to life with the most vivid colour and noise. It is sublime.
As we start the gentle climb out of Orsieres I am a little frustrated at the pace, this is a race after all. And so I hop up on to the side of the track and start to pass other runners. The gradient gradually increases, but is still runnable. Cowbells ring loudly in celebration. Further out of town schoolchildren with tiny backpacks have been brought out by their teachers to watch us. They hold out their hands and squeal with delight as the runners offer out high-fives. Our names are emblazoned in large bold letters on the front of our race numbers together with our respective national flags and the children make the most of it.
More gradual climb takes us through another cluster of houses and chateaus, and then all at once we are down to the real business. Leaving the road we are directed onto steep singletrack to the right. Immediately the effort changes from purposeful running to powerhike. Around me poles are suddenly brought to ground, those without double over and bring hands to thighs. Smiles disappear from faces and are replaced with focussed grimaces, furrowed brows. We have a long way to go, and making it all the way intact is a serious undertaking.
The climb up to Champex-Lac is mainly a series of steep switchbacks. After the relatively gentle ascent out of Orsieres we are required to up the effort and work hard for a good 1,600 feet of ascent on very steep and technical trail. I am surprised at how good my legs feel. I hold position, still amongst a mass of other runners, as we grunt and grind our way to the first aid station. For now, the altitude is not sufficient to greatly affect my endeavour, but the heat is proving to be problematic straight away. We are still early in the morning in Switzerland and only a fraction into the race, and I can already feel my face and neck slowly starting to burn. I regret opting for a shirt over a vest, and ruefully tug the zip down at the front to expose as much of my chest as possible. The cooling effect lasts no more than a minute.
Champex-Lac comes and goes in an instant. Or so it seems. I am reminded of 2013 and travelling here with Nicola to support Paul on the UTMB, and running from this spot to La Fouly to find him when he fell and was badly injured. Nothing has changed, and I find comfort in the familiarity. The support is warm, there are many people here. The cowbells keep ringing.
Inside the aid station’s marquee we are offered only water and cola. Trays of bananas, biscuits and cheeses are all covered over with cling film and set aside. I hear a lady explain to somebody else that the food is for the UTMB and CCC runners. I wonder if this will be the case across the course. I refill my water bottles and head out.
The town is beautiful. I run along the side of a perfectly still lake that mirrors the trees and peaks towering above it. I am smiling again. More supporters line the streets and a gentle climb on the road is quickly followed by a steady descent on good wide track. At last, an opportunity to cut loose. I pass a lot of runners here, some of whom I am sure I already passed on the way to Champex-Lac. This troubles me and I make a mental note to be more aware.
The climb begins gradually at first. I am surprised at how many people are walking. I run. It feels good to run. I am running the climb, overtaking other runners and feeling very strong. Whilst it is clear that I am making up a lot of places, I have no idea where I am in relation to the race as a whole. No concept of my place in this wonderful madness. As strange as it might sound, this is a relief.
A good section of running the climb inevitably comes to a close and as the gradient shifts sharply upwards I return to powerhiking. Our next checkpoint is La Giete just the other side of the next peak, and we need to climb around 2,800 feet to get there. This is where the serious work begins.
The ascent seems endless. Those with poles appear stronger, and I have to make way for a few quadripeds bounding up the mountain. Unconvinced by their efficacy and not wanting to become too disheartened, I elect to fall in behind somebody with poles and tap in to their rhythm. My attention becomes fixed on their feet and I follow them intently, metronomically. I keep pace. Sections of climb slowly pass by. The sun is now fully out, and I am burning. The singletrack switches constantly between total exposure and cool shade and the relief of the latter is palpable. Still I try to keep time. I keep the water constant. I remember to top up on salts and gels, and eat a little ‘real’ food at regular intervals. At the moment, the strategy is working.
I keep climbing.
Sometimes when feeling strong I overtake people. At other times when the strain becomes a little too much, I let them overtake me. The balance keeps shifting. The higher we climb, the more apparent the effect of the altitude. I am struggling to keep pace whilst keeping my heart rate at an appropriate level, and these are the moments where I allow somebody past. Where my breath is short and my heart is bursting through my chest. When I have regained control over my body I push harder, and reclaim places on the mountain. Maybe gain a few more. And so it continues, back and forth, back and forth. The heat is interminable. The climb is everything.
Halfway up I fall in with an English runner with poles. Paul. I follow his rhythm. We start to chat between breaths. He has been out here for weeks training for the race, and lets me know how far we have to climb still. And we climb, and climb, and climb. Having a companion helps. He is friendly, and we have a good comradery. Inch by inch, metre by metre, we haul each other up the side of the mountain. Near the top, as the gradient begins to flatten out, he turns and tells me that I will enjoy the descent. My heart rate is still too high and so I tell him to push on, that I need a couple more minutes walking, and we say goodbye. As I crest the peak I feel my strength returning, and so I get back to running. Fast.
I am flying down the side of a mountain in Switzerland. Me. Hopping from rock to rock, skipping across gnarled tree roots, kicking dirt up from the singletrack. Those with poles seem hesitant on the descent. It frustrates me to be held up behind them, and so when I can I skip around the outside, each time a calculated move that pushes me up another position. I push, and I push, and I can see the checkpoint hut of La Giete a few hundred metres away. It distracts me, and I hit the next footplant badly, landing on the side of a tree root. My ankle rolls and I put my full weight through it.
Elation instantly turns to despair and I hit the ground. I shout. I swear. There is a lot of pain. I fear the worst. And then as quickly as I rolled the damn thing a switch flicks in my head and I am adamant that this is not the end. This is not Devil of the Highlands. I am not going home yet. This will not stop me. I get up. I keep running. It hurts. I keep running.
I run straight through La Giete, which is only a number scanning station, and begin a good 1,800 feet of descent to the next aid station. It begins technically but eventually gives way to an easier wide path. The pain in my ankle begins to subside, and that which is left I try to block out. The further down I get the stronger I feel, and so I start to push again, all the way down to Trient.
Trient is glorious. The small town is alive, the support alone refills my depleted energy supplies and the aid station is an out and back. Even better, twice the support. I run up the main street.
And still the cowbells ring.
I take my time in the marquee getting myself together. I drink a lot of water and refill. I eat cheese. I eat some cake. I consider strapping the rolled ankle but decide against it. I thank the volunteers and run back down the main street.
Out of Trient the climb starts gradually again as it did after Champex. This time I fall in with the other runners and walk. The next ascent to Catogne is as big as the monster I tackled getting up to La Giete and I need to be careful. And so it begins again. 2,700 feet of climb.
The heat is almost unbearable. It is searingly hot. I drink and fuel constantly. I want to tear the shirt from my back and lie in the shade. I keep going. Something has changed inside me, and I am slowly becoming aware of it. This is already by far the hardest thing I have ever done, yet something within keeps me moving. I am not just climbing, I am climbing hard, methodically. I am not stopping.
I set targets. In fifteen minutes I will eat something. Ten minutes after that I will look at my phone and check for messages of support. In another thirty minutes I will eat a gel. These become cornerstones of the experience. I need things to look forward to. I have to break this into manageable pieces.
Eventually I catch Paul. We keep climbing. Time and motion take on new meaning. Fifteen minutes goes by and I check the GPS watch to find we have advanced 0.1 miles. The sun burns, the altitude bites, the gradient resists, each one slowly eroding our bodies. We are ants on this mountain. I have never felt smaller or more aware.
More climbing. We are relying now on the occasional pause for breath, usually in a patch of shade. The sun is too fierce to stop. I regret forgetting my hat.
I honestly don’t know how long it takes us to top out and reach Catogne. It seems like hours. It probably is. And once there all that is left for us is to descend again. Technical, fierce, fast switchbacks, then equally technical and fast needle-carpeted forest tracks.
This time I leave Paul behind. My legs, despite everything, feel good and I get through the 2,500 feet, which is far steeper this time, at a fair clip, or so it feels. But as I near the aid station of Vallorcine, Paul catches me again and I begin to question exactly how fast I have actually been moving. He tells me his wife is at Vallorcine and he plans on spending a good amount of time there. We run in together.
Of all the aid stations so far, I stay at Vallorcine the longest. I eat cheese, cake, and a bowl of Bouillon. I drink a whole litre of water, and refill my bottles. I text Nicola. I miss my wife. I send out texts to the rest of my family. I meet Paul’s wife, and tell them I am heading out. We shake hands. I leave Vallorcine alone, run for a short while and then my phone rings. Nicola.
We chat freely. I make her laugh. My outright despair at my situation makes me swear hysterically and I even laugh at myself. It is a good phonecall, a timely boost as I set out on the final climb. After the call, a few messages come in. My brother in law Paul with route advice and words of comfort. My sister, telling me she is tracking me online and that I’m doing great. My Mum and my dad telling me they are proud. My mama in law with a timely ‘Come on Simon lad’. My brother, telling me that he loves me. I am feeling good about the race, but all the support humbles me and I shed a tear. I am appreciating just how lucky I am. Nobody tells me my position and I am grateful for that. I put the phone away and start to run.
The next section to Col des Montets is a gradual ascent, and I mix in running with powerhiking. I feel as if I am moving well and I pass a lot of people. The only person to pass me is a resurgent Paul, who seems to have gained a second wind back at the aid station. Content to let him go, I shout some words of encouragement as he pushes on. I am surprised when I reach the top of this climb, as I have done so with relative ease. There are no crowds of runners around me anymore, I cannot see anybody in front or behind. For the moment I am alone in the Alps. Paul and Nicola text again to tell me that the route profile indicates this climb isn’t so bad. I feel very pleased with my effort. I wonder how far La Flegere is. I think I might be getting tired.
The route deviates from following the UTMB. The path cuts away quite suddenly, and I begin to descend. It is the most technical section so far, with large rocks and huge tree roots making progress slower than I would like. I slip and strike my knee on a rock. A little further along I leave my trailing leg too low and hit the front of my shin on a boulder. My feet start to feel sore. I realise I am definitely getting tired. This is much harder than it should be.
Where is La Flegere?
The descent is now treacherous. Every now and again I have to interrupt the flow of running to get down on all fours to climb down a boulder, or push my way over a fallen tree. My feet are sore and my quads are starting to become a little unresponsive. The route markers are still ahead of me so I am definitely heading in the right direction. I realise I have run out of water, meaning I have drunk a full litre in about six kilometres. I am very tired.
Eventually the path levels out, briefly, and then I come to a full stop. I stare up at the final climb ahead of me, swear loudly, and for the first time today I hang my head in despair. Here is the final climb, and it looks like the worst of all. But there is no choice. I bring my hands to my thighs and begin to climb again. La Flegere, the final aid station sits at least 2,000 feet above me. It seems right about now to be the promised land. From there it is five miles, all downhill, to Chamonix and my wife. If I can get to the top of this mountain I can finish this race.
It is by far the worst section of the day so far. The heat burns, the altitude plays it’s games with my heart and my lungs, my legs have had enough and my back is very sore. There is no relief. I have no water so I cannot hydrate. I cannot take a gel or eat any food as my mouth is too dry. I busy myself by jostling for position with a Salomon sponsored lady, made twice as difficult by the film crew she has trailing her. Artful shots of pristine running form in spotless white compression kit, ruined by a bedraggled Yorkshireman on his last legs.
The climb continues. I am surprised to catch Paul. He is in a bad way and at a full stop. We exchange words and I ask if he is okay. He says he is. I continue climbing, he stays put. I am aware that I cannot keep this going for much longer but I keep going regardless.
Occasionally the trail flattens for sections of maybe ten or eleven metres. Running these is a token gesture at best, but I do so anyway. Then I double back over and climb again.
I keep turning and checking the trail, looking for Paul. I silently will him to appear, but he doesn’t. I hope he is okay.
I am not now okay.
Three quarters of the way up, my head is spinning uncontrollably and I am done. Despair overwhelms me. The mountain has won. I do not know what to do. I text Nicola, “This is too much”. It does not occur to me how selfish an act this is.
I can hear running water to my left and so I leave the trail for the promise of relief. The mountain’s river is fast, fierce even, and requires a climb on all fours to reach. I don’t stop to contemplate the consequences. I clamber down the embankment and immerse myself. It is the coldest most wonderful sensation I have ever felt. The mountain’s water rushes over my limp body, and then I dunk my head. It is so cold that it aches straight away to do so. I fill my bottle and down the whole thing. Even the brainfreeze feels good. I do it again. That’s a whole litre down. I eat some food and drink more. I check my phone, and see the messages of concern from Nicola. I have worried her. I am an idiot.
I take my other bottle out and fill the both of them, then put them back in their place. I stand up. A deep breath. A nod to myself. I say, “La Flegere”. It is not an invitation. It is a command.
Climbing back up the bank and onto the trail, I fall in next to a runner I had chatted to back in Orsieres. Mathieu. The trail opens up to reveal a scree laden slope, and at the top I can see the cable car station that houses our checkpoint. Mathieu speaks little English, and I speak little French. But the company inspires the both of us to get through this.
“Non. Et Vous?”
Smiles from the both of us. The first in a while.
“It is so hot”
“Oui. Yes. Hot”.
I offer him my water. He takes it. We share the climb. We are going to do this.
We are greeted warmly at the aid station. A volunteer embraces me as we go in and speaks very quickly to me in French. I cannot understand what he is saying, I suspect it has something to do with me being covered in salt from all the sweating, but his enthusiasm is a great comfort. I shamble in to the marquee. More smiling faces. I eat, and refill bottles, then I sit down to text Nicola. I tell her I am on my way. A lady offers me cola. I don’t like cola but by now I suppose any calories are good calories, so I say yes. She needs my cup, which I can’t be bothered at this point to find, but she does the job for me and rummages through my bag. The cola tastes good. Anything tastes good right now. I am grateful for her kindness.
The man next to me is in tears. He is hunched over his walking poles and sobbing uncontrollably and the volunteers can’t console him. I place my hand on his shoulder for a moment and then get up to leave. Mathieu remains seated on the other side of the tent. I hold up my hand, childlike, and say “five miles”. Each digit a waypoint to some indefinable victory. He smiles wearily and says softly, “Yes. Down. Harder”. There is an unspoken moment of acknowledgement between us but he isn’t ready to leave the aid station yet. So I say goodbye. I thank the volunteers and head out of the marquee.
Five miles to go, all downhill. I’ve got this.
The descent is steep, and my feet feel like they are paying a price. I am sore and tired, but once I escape the gravel track and our route turns to forested singletrack I find another gear and become very comfortable. I start to overtake other runners with ease, a few of whom I have struggled to overhaul the whole race. I briefly entertain the idea of stopping and texting Nic again to let her know how good I am feeling but the absurdity of doing so quickly outweighs the compulsion to boast.
At last, the GPS seems to be ticking the distance off at something like a reasonable rate. The switchbacks continue, and it starts to feel easier to breathe. The path widens again, and the switchbacks finally finish. I am running close to the town now. To the right is a small waterfall, a woman and her daughter are standing looking. I climb underneath it. Water overwhelms me. There is a huge sense of relief that I did not even realise I was looking for. The woman laughs, the girl screams at the funny man. They yell “Bravo!!” as I start to run again, down, down, down, all the way to Chamonix.
I hit tarmac. Houses spring up either side. It is quiet, but orange markers painted on the road keep me running. I have less than a mile to go. I run through the backstreets of Chamonix, attention fixed on the orange stripes ahead of me. More and more people start to line the streets. They all clap, they all shout their support. I am smiling again.
Some police officers direct me down another road to the right, and before I have chance to consider what is about to happen I am running alongside the river in to the town centre. It is very busy now. Through streets lined with people, noise, pageantry. I hang a left and realise now that in less than a minute I am going to cross that line. My Brother in Law Paul suddenly jumps out of the crowd and hands me my Yorkshire flag. I keep running, the crowds cheer, the Yorkshire Rose now flies behind me. I slap hands and high-five well wishers and supporters as I run. It is exactly as I had hoped it would be. I turn the final corner. I have a hundred metres left to run.
A year ago, as Nicola and I watched runners finish in Chamonix, I told her that one day I would run one of these races, and that as I got to the finish straight I’d have a Yorkshire flag in one hand, and I’d have her by my side to run with me across the line. I have never been entirely sure whether she took that as seriously as I meant it.
Through the wonderful din, I can hear the shouts of my wife and her parents away to the right. I veer over to them and take Nicola’s hand. Josephine shouts “Go on!” to Nic, and she negotiates her way through the barricade. It is my honour to run the last fifty metres and cross the finish line with my wife.
I am elated. I embrace Nicola under the finish stand and we kiss. Paul, Dennis and Josie make their way over to the finish line and we hug. There are tears. I call my family in England. I am overjoyed that they are overjoyed. They know what this means. There are more tears.
Other finishers come in and we move a short distance out of their way to the steps in the plaza. I sit down and contemplate what has just happened. Information begins to work it’s way to my eyes and ears, through telephones and tablets and word of mouth. I am 141st out of 1200 runners. There is speculation I might be third placed British male. There is an alarming DNF rate.
We sit and let the moment resonate a while longer. Everywhere I look there are smiles. We have done a good thing today.
A week later and I am still contemplating. The events of the day are still slowly sinking into my consciousness. Every day I become more aware and responsive. Every day I become increasingly grateful. I have never done anything harder, more intense, or more rewarding. And although there is absolutely no way that the UK is an appropriate training ground for such an event (or indeed any of the UTMB races) I intend to work very hard in the upcoming twelve months in order to go and do it all again as soon as possible.
My heartfelt thanks to anybody that has sent me a tweet, message or email about the race since last Thursday. I am humbled by the kind words and support.
Huge thanks to the Goblins for accepting me in to their family, supporting me unconditionally and helping me do crazy things like the stuff I’ve written about above. It was wonderful to have you there. Special thanks to Pyllon for his backup, advice and love. Massive thanks to my folks, my bro Tom and my sis Emma, who tracked the whole thing and kept me supported and loved the whole way over the phone. I carried you with me all the way in my heart and I love you dearly.
And most especially thank you to my beautiful wife Nicola, who continues to inspire me every single day and without whom I wouldn’t even be lining up to start a race, let alone chasing my dreams as I did last week. You have no idea how important you are, and that only makes you more important x.
Remember the ankle roll just before La Giete? Yeah…